COSMUS (diy) - One to One: Donating backpacks full of care

The Challenge: 

The Question: 

How we can help, quickly and effectively, people on the move/refugees/homeless?

The Problem: 

In an emergency, people need accommodation, clothing, food, medical care e.t.c. Existing solutions are ineffective and people are suffering.

The Solution: 

A solidarity network with well prepared people for crises and a survival handbook with forgotten or unknown tips and tricks.


In August 2015, as the first large waves of refugees started landing on the Greek shores and stuck along the border of Idomeni, I started this initiative of collecting and filling backpacks with first need items for refugees. At first, this has started very modestly, with a few friends organizing clothing donations through the Facebook . At the beginning, I wasn’t expending such a big response to my call, but volunteers -known and unknown- started visiting my clothing shop in Thessaloniki, bringing clothes and helping out to fill in the backpacks.

Within two months, this action spread virally all over Greece. Over time, I networked with other grassroots initiatives active in refugee care, such as the Alternative Immigrant Centre of Thessaloniki (@To-Steki) and Oikopolis. In some cases, people followed our instructions and respected our philosophy of unconditional giving, but there have also been problematic cases because there were also people that tried to hijack the process for personal gain.

I have learned to live with the dynamics, and I started helping out at Oikopolis, to create a clothing storage, explaining an internationally used methodology of inventorying, so refugees were able to serve themselves on their own. This system still works, where refugees can come, try and take the clothes they need for free.

While continuing to work with clothes, I now focus on providing school items for children and the campaign has shifted focus. From just catering for refugees, we also provide care for native homeless people. Through a Facebook page, we are trying to organize volunteers who adopt the schooling needs/items of children in need. These needs may be covered through a donation of items or money, and this is open to everyone. So far, the stock gathered so far through donations, is enough for about 250 kids. In parallel, I am organizing seminars and crash courses on repairing clothes and upcycling old objects to create, for example, pencil boxes.

There is another task, which is more time-consuming and complex, in terms of research. I'm in the team-building process that will eventually become a non-profit legal entity, to develop a Handbook for the Management of Material and Resources, in cases of emergency. For example, due to my professional background, I know how to sort and store thousands of clothing items. Somebody else might have other skills. This is also connected with the sharing of knowledge of alternative treatments, practices or hacks, that might offer cheap and practical solutions to people in need. For example, using cocoa powder as a shampoo, or other uses of baking  soda, salt, etc.

I come from Thessaloniki, and my ancestors were refugees. Initially, the response from my immediate environment has been disappointing. My job is in the clothing sector, however, being an elected Municipal Councillor at the City of Thessaloniki, people know my public activity so it was easy to build trust. Furthermore, I am sitting at the Management Board to the Municipal TV100 station. Having many contacts with journalists helped to communicate the action widely. All this combined has resulted in the massive spontaneous response of a community of 1500 citizens from all walks of life. Including people from Europe and the US, who donated waterproof jackets and blankets.

As s municipal councilor, I am in contact with local authorities. Sadly the Municipality responded very poorly, compared to what it could do. Same goes with the Ministry of Immigration Policy. We talked to the consultants, they appreciated our effort, but there was no practical result.

Unfortunately, the public sentiment is negative. Mass media shape the opinion that the refugees stopped crossing borders, so people believe that they stopped coming. Others falsely believe that refugees are to blame for anything wrong. And since the beginning of the summer, most volunteers disappeared. This has, inevitably, resulted in a fatigue in the area of refugee care.

Nevertheless, I have no other option but continue. I wish to launch a crowdsourcing campaign, so the venture can continue. I imagine of a list of people with different skills, who -in the case of need- will be ready to take up a certain role. A type of inventory of what human assets exist and what everyone can contribute.


hello, maybe I can be of help

ybe's picture

hello, maybe I can be of help for the chapter 'how to cope with emotional/mental suffering' in your handbook. In fact, I plan coming to greece with my Trauma Tour Bus - providing trauma information and therapy, and also 'help for the helpers' - we need to take care of our own energy and ressources too... Take a look at my website and contact me if you think we can work together.

@ybe thank you

Aravella Salonikidou's picture

@ybe thank you for your interest! I' d like to know more about your work but there something wrong with the link. Could you repeat it?


here's the link again

ybe's picture

@ybe thank you!

Aravella Salonikidou's picture

I'll be back soon!

When will you visit us?

Aravella Salonikidou's picture

@ybe I'd like to know when will you visit Greece. I think it will be helpfull for the team. 

december 2016 / January 2017

ybe's picture

@Aravella Salonikidou I plan to visit Greece in december 2016 / January 2017 - I can stay a month or so





Aravella Salonikidou's picture

@ybe hope to see you soon!

Make sure you guys keep us in the loop!

Alberto's picture

We all stand to learn much from @ybe 's visit to @Aravella Salonikidou . If you could find the time to blog about it, I (and, I think, many others) would be super-interested in reading and commenting. 

I'll keep you posted !

ybe's picture

I'll keep you posted :-) . I may be going to Calais as well - via Alex Levene, keep you posted on that too.



Alberto's picture

We stand ready to diffuse your posts in the Edgeryders network, @ybe – and we would be happy to host them, if you do not have a blog of your own.

I have a blog on my website.

ybe's picture

I have a blog on my website. What is easiest to do for you to spread the news? What do you need from me? Bloglinks? Newsletter subscription? I blog ca. once a week, newsletter is more like once a month. And on twitter we're already connected :))

Hang in there

Noemi's picture

@Aravella Salonikidou very interesting to read you, over the past year indeed we in other parts of the world are reading a lot of Greek groups' efforts to respond to the refugee crisis.. all very vocal. I wonder: with so many diverse community efforts, haven't there been any events where active people can do the kind of mapping which you mention, where they can say what is needed from their side and try to collaborate more?

I realise it's a lot to expect though, I imagine coping with an unpredictable situation already takes a lot of effort. 

I remember @Alex Levene writing about the camp in Calais and the fact that coordination happens through medium to long term volunteers. Could they be the kind of primary asset that can help do inventoring, mapping, research for this stage you're at?

@Noemi The situation is not

Aravella Salonikidou's picture

@Noemi The situation is not so simple as it seems. In Thessaloniki for example there were more than 50 different solidarity groups and thousands of individual people that activated to help the refugees in a way. But it was too much. Thousands of naked and hungry people. No time for planning. It was impossible to organise something that could work seriously. Only the goverment could  make a general call and most of the NGO's worked separately. We 've tried workshops through libraries, marathon brainstorming for mobile apps, mapping groups and needs etc but nothing in a professional way or with cooperation with expertise. 

At the moment I'm focus to create a solidarity net that can be prepared for crises. In this network everybody could have a role that can "play" in case of emergency. Also a survival handbook with forgotten or unknown tips and tricks that can solve problems in such crises. Especially for clothing, I 'm trying to solve the problem with an idea called "smart boxes" (difficult to explain at the moment). I don' t know if there's something out there that can help. This is why I'm here...

Teaching each other how to respond

Alberto's picture

Wow, @Aravella Salonikidou , what a story. My favourite part, however, is this:

At the moment I'm focus to create a solidarity net that can be prepared for crises. In this network everybody could have a role that can "play" in case of emergency. Also a survival handbook with forgotten or unknown tips and tricks that can solve problems in such crises.

In the language we use here in Edgeryders, you are working on a community and documentation for it to operate on common knowledge. There are also opencare's main elements. This is the community equivalent of what venture capitalists call "scaling". You extend your reach, but without large money investment and unwieldy hierarchies. 

Maybe someone's already asked, but... there is a chance we might help you get funding for your initiative (if that's what you need). We are working on a sort of collective proposal, where the proponent is not just us, but a whole "smart swarm" of grassroots initiatives like yours. More information is here

I understand

Noemi's picture

What you say makes complete sense: at the end of the day you have a major crisis and not enough professionals anyway to deal with it. So, large mobilization doing suboptimal work is still better than the alternative of not helping or having enough help.

@Franca Locati mentioned something I couldn't forget: she says you can sometimes help someone too much. She was refering to the way organisations work in providing services for newcomers. You two should definitely connect, Franca worked for quite some time in the Italian system of refugee reception, for the City of Milano, and managed to set up a platform for connecting a lot of language teaching organisations around to make a more coherent service to the people needing it.

"So, large mobilization doing

Alex Levene's picture

"So, large mobilization doing suboptimal work is still better than the alternative of not helping or having enough help"

this is definitely the case at the Calais camp


Alberto's picture

@Alex Levene and @Aravella Salonikidou (and whoever is interested), let's all make a note to go deeper into the notion of suboptimality. I think it could be important. Normal policy is that fast, messy, large scale response has to be stopped. Citizens are told to stay home, stay out of the way as the professionals dust off their contingency plans. If we can make a case for this to be the wrong thing to do in some case, it is goping to be an important policy contribution. 

Will think and post here

Alex Levene's picture

I think there's a lot to be said about suboptimality when it come to care and response. I will have a think and put some words together for you.

So i've been thinking a little about this`

Alex Levene's picture

Just a few thoughts on suboptimality to hopefully drive the discussion around this topic.

It is the case from Alberto's comment that "fast, messy, large scale response has to be stopped. Citizens are told to stay home, stay out of the way as the professionals dust off their contingency plans"

It seems that this is true in cases where: a) a contingency plan already exists (e.g. Earthquake in Nepal, Disaster Relief in Sub-Saharan Africa) The above examples are plans for disasters that occur frequently and regularly in places that share a geographic similarity or border. It would seem logical to expect that, for example, a disaster relief plan for helping people in Nepal would also be of use if a similar problem occurred in Kashmir, or Bhutan. Since similar types of disaster are likely to occur in those place it makes sense to defer to NGOs on the ground in those areas.

But, in order for us to 'leave it to the professional' there have to be NGO's willing, and able to step into that role in the space.

What has happened in Greece and Calais is we have seen NGOs step up initially, but then step back from the problem. Often because they cannot work with the changing political situation. I am thinking here of MSF pulling out of Lesvos after the EU-Turkey repatriation deal occurred. (

The French government's reluctance to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Calais camp has created a vacuum. So, NGOs have struggled to work in that area. Because they cannot work under license, they cannot reduce the suffering there, except on a micro scale.

Perhaps the idea of sub-optimality in the system comes back to a wider idea. One that is floating around in other areas of the site, that of 'unlicensed behavior'. Once an organisation or NGO becomes 'legitimate', it tends to deal with Governments. It starts to operate at a higher level politically. This brings with it more constraints on the way it can act (at least overtly). It becomes more constrained to do things 'the correct way' and less able to focus on doing what is required.

When there isn't a precident for dealing with a disaster on the scale or in that location two options remain. Either improvise or adapt. Both options work with sub-optimality from different directions. 

The NGO is most likely to adapt. They will find solutions used in other areas, or to address different problems, and adapt them to the new situation. These solutions are 'tried and tested' and so they can point to evidence that shows where they have worked in the past. The NGO avoids looking bad if this approach fails, because they can show ways it has worked before. Their cultural and political capital stays strong and they can work on a new response in the long term. I expect that the lessons learned by MSF et al during this decade's refugee crisis in Europe will lead to contingency plans that will be used around the globe in the future. They struggle to deal with the problem in real time though.

At the other end the improviser continually adapts what they are doing to try new solutions. They are willing to try anything. They are willing to fail because they have no social or political capital to diminish, except with the people they work with directly. This means they do not provide a consistent service, but they can evolve new solutions quickly through ongoing prototypes. They risk creating failures, but know that they will move on to another possibility the next day. This behaviour can be seen in the citizen organised projects in Calais and Greece.

What is required is a way of feeding the experiences and innovation prototyped by the improvised, citizen-led organisation into the institutional learning of NGOs

Nepal ought to be a good case

trythis's picture

They ran the SOPs (but did not factor in that Nepal is hard to get to/around in) so a lot of dogs were flown in to look for people under the rubble who had mostly perished by the time the dogs came. While they were walking their dogs in Kathmandu you really needed water treatment - absence of which can quickly lead to a loss of life that drawfs the ones they might have pulled from the rubble. Fortunately that did come before epidemics happened.

At the same time citizens were either sitting under tarps in the rain, complaining about a lack of water (while not catching the rainwater!), or standing in very long lines at the government water truck that could only serve 1 person at a time because no one had thought of a manifold.

This is why it needs to press

Aravella Salonikidou's picture

This is why it needs to press the smart mode button.


Village-Psy's picture


It sounds like you have been tremendously active  in  the refugee crisis over the past year  and  it is good to hear that although the summer interval has meant that many of the volunteers have disappeared, you are not being discouraged, but rather you are thinking of new ways to keep the venture going.

The idea of an inventory of human assets  where everyone can contribute reminds us  of how small communities function best.It sounds like this   year you  found a pool of  competent people with various skills to tackle quick and practical solutions for the vulnerable population you were handling. Now that the refugee crisis is no longer so much in the forefront  fewer people are helping out voluntarily and as you say there is a crisis in the refugee care area. 

Maybe one thing to consider is that volunteers also need to feel at some point  'taken care of ' ,so providing  the helpers with some sort of 'help' of a different kind than the one they are offering, can be very beneficial in using them longterm. From our experience from village-psy this summer the dynamic that is created in a small community is huge when all  the parties involved feel that they are taken care of. There are many ways to help the helpers. One  that could work could be finding other volunteers to do some art/music or dramatherapy workshops so that  people offering their practical  skills in the venture can get something in return that is challenging, stimulating and in a different way  supportive  to them.  This is just a suggestion, i am sure there will be many more...

Good luck with your next steps!


Who then takes care of the volunteers?

Noemi's picture

@Village-Psy maybe you can help us understand why self care is so expensive for one to offer it to herself. Have you read about the 24/7 caregivers who simply can't switch off? If you have something to offer to that discussion and would be willing to head over there it would be very well received.

burn out

Village-Psy's picture

@ Noemi

i agree that self care has become a luxury for volunteers (no time, too many tasks to tackle , unprecedented situations) especially under circumstances such as the one Alex @Levene desribes in Calais, but let us not forget of the burnt out effect. And when we reach that stage we are of  no help to anyone.... 

Self care should not be a luxury.  As volunteers, we are  human beings who need the basics to get by, we need water,  food, shelter , sleep , safety and human contact but  in order to carry on we also need to know where to draw our limits. We are not superhuman, we cannot do everything, we cannot do everything by ourselves.

In Lesvos and many other of the Greek islands flooding with refugees this past year, numerous young idealistic volunteers arrived from all over Europe wanting to make a difference in the lives of others. Some of these individuals under the circumstances, after a few weeks, not being able to bear the situation, which was physically but above all mentally exhausting ended up, being burnt out and rather than provide help  required themselves psychological  assistance. This was ultimately very distracting for the rescue teams and those providing PFA who needed to focus on the refugees instead.   I guess what i am saying is selfcare in whatever form it takes,  is a prerequisite in order to be able to carry on the difficult task of volunteering in such harsh conditions otherwise you may be burnt out .


I see..

Noemi's picture

Can't disagree with what you write @Village-Psy and the solution found in Calais seems to be training for self care and making your mind catch up with the program somehow. Because I'm sure anyone rational can agree self care is important, but managing emotions and urges is something for another side of your brain..

A good idea!

Aravella Salonikidou's picture

@Village-Psy it's a good idea but suitable for non stop groups and for those who have the luxury -I should say- to spend time for themselves. Here in Greece we have too much pressure anyway because of economical crisis. Most of the people who helped in my project they used to respond when I was calling for something (help, car, food, clothes etc) and then they were disappearing back to their lives and jobs. Anyway, now we are going to prepare a special place for meetings, so I thing we'll have the chance to care about us better and having fun as you suggest.

Thank you!

would like to fix date(s)

ybe's picture

@aravellasalonikidou Hello Aravella , I am in the middle of organizing and planning my tour to Greece. I would like to fix date(s) with you. What do you need from me? What could I offer? To the Thessaloniki projects you're in i? Maybe have a skype conversation this week? I would like to fix dates for the beginning of december. Would that be allright with you?

contact me by mail or skype chez_filly19

thx - I look forward meeting you!


Alberto's picture

It's great to see you ladies @ybe and @Aravella Salonikidou scheme! I am sure your meeting will be a great success.

No problem! Anytime it;s ok!

Aravella Salonikidou's picture

No problem! Anytime it;s ok!  skype aravella1717